Don Alias: A Tribute
World-class conguero, salsero, drummer and percussionist extraordinaire, Charles Donald Alias was born on Christmas Day, 1939though obviously the music world had yet to know the gift it had received.
With a half century and most of his life spent in music, Alias not only performed across a profound cross-section of modern music but was a catalyst in its forging. It's a deep honor that's tempered with great sadness to share this loss and to be responsible for Alias' last interview.
There are few things anyone could say that could match or mirror what only those who knew him best could express. So here then are the words of his peers to tell the story of this great talent who touched so many of us more profoundly than we know.
Corey Allen and Family
"Don Alias set the standard for sensitivity in a percussionist. He was a rare sound innovator, who changed the sound and scope of the congas and every instrument that he touched. He was a consummate accompanist.
"I remember Jaco marveling at how Don and Herbie [Hancock] complemented one another on his first record. I met Don when I started playing with Carles Benavente and Jorge Pardo, two great flamenco musicians who had worked previously with Don together with Chick Corea. Both Carles and Jorge are 20-year veterans of Paco de Lucia and they felt that Don and Alex Acuna were the only ones outside of Spain that could play the flamenco rhythms, particularly the bulerias and solea. Don's rhythm came from another place, not bounded by country or style.
"Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote a piece in which the instructions to the player were 'Play the rhythm of the universe. Play the rhythm of your smallest particles. Play all the rhythms in between.' Don did that every time he played.
"I'm very sad about Don. Before I met Don I remember hearing him live with Miles and then with Elvin Jones. I was a great admirer of his...he was the only conga player I ever heard who could fit in with and compliment Elvin's style. That says a lot right there.
"We worked together in different projects in the '80s and '90s. He played percussion on many of my albums. Don was a master at Latin percussion who was equally adept at jazz. I don't know of any others. His beat was exceptional and the sound he produced was phenomenal.
Steve Swallow called him the Casals of the congas and I'll second that. His nickname was Lungs but I'm not sure how he got it. Don always made playing music a lot of fun.....and deep."Steve Swallow
"Don Alias could play with anyone, anytime. In whatever music he played, he provided the invisible threads that held the rest of us together. He made music from anything at hand, all the time.
"Don's vibrant spirit and unique music are irreplaceablehe was simply 'one of a kind' in all ways. In the late '60s and early '70s we would jam together at bassist Gene Perla's loft along with Jan Hammer on keyboards practically every day...both Jan and Don were great trap drummers, so they would split the drum chair. 'Lungs' as we called him just killed on drums, but due to his vast knowledge of world music and world percussion instruments he became best-known as a first call percussionist (more: a colorist), but I'll never forget him at Genes's loft...we'd say "c'mon Lungs let's bash," and he would
"Don represented a triumph of determination and dedication to music. But, he didn't lose sight of compassion for others. He had an inquisitive mind open to suggestion. Mostly, I could count on him to lead and follow at the same time.
"Musically, he was one of a kind who shuffled genre feelings in a constant stream of creativity. His sense of comedy was a joy to experience, and his commitment to seriousness a blessing. My best friend, my partner, may you be an inspiration to those who follow."
"It was sad news hearing of the passing of my friend Don. He was one of the Musical Gods in my lifea man and an artist with a strong and personal offering in everything he touched both musically and in life.
"My first contact with Don was way back in Boston in the late '50s when I was still in high school. We had put a little trio together, Don on congas and upright bass, myself on piano and a very young Tony Williams on drums. It was An Adventure I won't forget.
"I also have fond memories of Don playing in my band on the tour we did with Paco Delucia, Carles Benavent and Tom Brechtlein, going on to record together in South Africa on our record Again And Again (Elektra, 1982). I send my heartfelt condolences to Don's family and my love to Don wherever his journey takes him.
"One of the most life-changing things that can happen to an artist is when one's preconceptions are shattered. This forces one to reassess one's perceptions of the music, and can result in a period of fresh growth with a new, less fettered perspective. Don Alias shattered mine once, and I'm grateful for that. During the early '70s, Elvin Jones' band used to work the [Village] Vanguard all the time. In those days Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman, and Gene Perla were in the band, so those of us who knew them or played with them were down there a lot.
"There was a period during which Don played congas with Elvin's band. I'll never forget the first week they played with Don at the Vanguard. When Randy Brecker told me about it, I was incredulous. What, I thought, could congas possibly doeven when played by a virtuoso like Donin a band with perhaps the most polyrhythmically-sophisticated drummer of his time, except get in the way? Randy replied that, believe it or not, it sounded great and that Don's groove was deeper than Elvin's, providing the rhythmic floor for the band. I was skeptical, but went down, and I'll never forget it. Randy had it exactly rightDon was playing loose in a way that didn't confine Elvin, and at the same time his groove was the deepest thing on the bandstand. I stood there, listening, and kind of shaking my head and saying to myself, 'This can't be happening.' But it was!"
"The first time I heard Don he was playing drums with Nina Simone in the late '60s when I was with Miles Davis. He had a great feel on drums, which was interesting because his real thing was percussion. He had more than enough technique to execute his ideas but he had a feel that was just so fluid and put so much heart and soul in it that it really enhanced whatever was going on, whether it was on congas or on drums.
"Don swung on congas. A lot of percussion players have a lot of technique but they don't swing. He had a feel that was comparable to mine, because we had the same African thing, transfused to America. We always had a rapport when we played and eventually we wound up playing together with Miles. On "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" [Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)] Don plays that beat on the drum set which is really, really nice.
"I remember playing somewhere in Europe [with Herbie Hancock's New Standards All Stars], and Michael Brecker was soloing. Everybody just dropped out and left Don and Michael playing, which was very interestingyou rarely ever hear thatfor about a chorus or two. It was a nice contrast just hearing Don swinging, pushing Brecker, and then after the set Don said, 'Man, I was hoping you'd come back in and rescue me!' But it sounded great because you could hear it was swinging, and his thing was so complete.
"Sad as it is it's still a blessing that he graced us with his creative essence. He had the intuitive sensibility and sensitivity to know what to put in and what not to put in. We were like a rhythm team, and that's made us work so good, we never clashed. It's about listening and working as a unit, and Don was really a team player. But when it came time to shine and solo he could do that, too.
But I'm deeply saddened by the losshe's not here doing what he does best, he made you feel good."
"Don was known as 'Lungs' for a variety of wonderful, life-affirming reasons. As a conga player, he may be one of the few who knew what to do and how to do it in a jazz setting. He played in the Elvin Jones Group with myself, Steve Grossman and Gene Perla in the early '70s for an extended period. For Elvin to accept a conga player on a night-to-night basis was the ultimate sign of respect. As well, few people were aware of how well he played the trap sethe could burn like no one. Most of all, Lungs gave it all whenever he playeda true believer!"
"Don Alias brought greatness to any musical project or piece of music that he played. His beat, whether on congas or drum set, was instantly recognizable and all his own. He was as serious a musician as I have ever known, yet Don always had the biggest and most beautiful smile for everyone around him. I feel so very fortunate to have worked with him, and blessed to have known him."
"Don was a really good friend of mine for thirty years. I was so shocked when I heard. I talked to him not too long before he died. I was on the road when I heard and was just shocked. It's very sad.
"We played with Jaco on the road for two years with Word of Mouth and also with Blood, Sweat and Tears. He was just incredible. He's on three or four of my records. We did a Hendrix tune on my record Give and Take (Atlantic, 1997)'Who Knows'where he played brushes on conga, and Don played the shit out of it. He's just awesome. He was a really special player. I love Don and will miss him forever and am glad to have to known him."
"I consider myself most fortunate to be among the many artists who had the pleasure of making music with Don Alias. He was an impeccable musician who always brought a positive energy to my music. I always loved his "less is best approach.
"Don was a warm, simple, passionate human being who loved life, music, sports, movies and most of all, his family and his friends. I am proud to say Don Alias was a friend of mine. Lord how I miss my friend."